Healthy School Lunches Your Kids Will Love

Back-to-school time can be fraught. On the one hand, the kids are back in school and all is right with the world; on the other, you’ve got nine months of packing school lunches in front of you.

And then there’s the guilt. Do you capitulate and pack the lunch box or bag with whatever is easiest (hello, PB & J, bag of snack chips, a banana and an Oreo) that you know your kid will eat, or do you make the effort to put together a nutritious meal? It’s easy to fall into a rut.

I’d like to be able to tell you that my children never ate processed foods growing up, but of course, that would be a lie. Because, not surprisingly, children have their own opinions about what they want to eat. The solution is in compromise. Include your kids in the process, and plan ahead. This will make your life simpler and ease the pain of school mornings.

Restaurateur and “Iron Chef America” judge Donatella Arpaia is mother to a 4-year-old boy, and knows a thing or two about playing to a tough crowd. We spoke recently about how parents can solve the riddle of school lunches – making food kids will want to eat that you can feel good about, too.

“There’s no more PB & J in [many] schools because of nut allergies, so that takes away a lot of options … we have to be more creative,” says Arpaia. “We’ve got to get vegetables into the lunch … [and look] for new solutions for busy working moms, to read those labels carefully. Because [healthy] packaged goods are fine solutions for busy working moms.”

Don’t limit yourself to sandwiches. Arpaia suggests reworking Tuesday night’s turkey Bolognese sauce, served over pasta for dinner; it can make an appearance on a slider bun in Thursday’s lunch. “Think about traditional dinner foods,” says Arpaia, “and put them in a sandwich, and your kids will really love them.”

It’s a given that most kids respond well to salt and sugar, but of course you’ll want to ride herd over that. Many parents opt for sneaking vegetables in to meals, like pureéing vegetables into cream sauces, or shredding them into meat loaves or muffins. These tactics can work well, but there are other methods that aren’t quite as covert.

Think about what your child responds well to and expand on that. Arpaia suggests making food “fun and interactive,” such as her Mexican Chicken and Corn Salad. She enlists her son’s help measuring and mixing the dressing and tossing the salad. Her son loves bacon, so she realized that he might tolerate smoked paprika in the dressing. Voilà! A new flavor to add to his palate.

Here are some tips that will make everyone happy.

1. Change it up.

Don’t pack the same meal everyday. It’s easy to get into the rut of sandwich/chips/fruit/cookie. That leads me to…

2. Make a plan.

Don’t wait until the school bus in front of your house to throw whatever you can grab into the lunchbox. Make a simple lunch plan each Sunday and include your kids in the process. What do they want to see in their lunch? (This is where the compromise part comes in!)

3. Make it fun.

Let the kids help grate the cheese, marinate the chicken for grilling, stir the dressing, wash the grapes. If they’re invested in cooking the food – age appropriately, of course – they’ll be more interested in eating it.

4. Eat the rainbow.

Vibrant color (no Flaming Hots, please) often indicates the presence of healthy vitamins. Leafy greens, orange carrot sticks, avocado slices, berries – all are packed with good-for-you nutrients. Make sure to include them.

5. Whole grains and legumes are good for you.

Opt for whole wheat breads and baked goods whenever possible; they are high in fiber and lower on the glycemic scale. It’s sustainable energy your kids need for the school day, not a sugar rush.

6. No sweet drinks.

Juice boxes are laden with sugar and empty calories. Opt for water, coconut water, herbal iced tea, or milk instead.

7. A little sweet is good.

Fruit is a favorite option, but you could also include a little whole-grain zucchini or carrot muffin with a dab of cream cheese “frosting,” a small fruit yogurt or perhaps a snack bag of granola. Your kid shouldn’t feel deprived.

8. Pack it up!

There are so many fun lunch boxes out there now, with colorful containers and compartments that make opening lunch a fun event in itself. Check out these Penguin Lunch Ice Packs to keep the food cool; a reusable “Bento Box” in plastic or stainless steel; or a fun neoprene bag.